I was fortunate to stumble upon the documentary Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me recently on TV Ontario (a public television network) in its first North American broadcast.
It had me re-thinking aspects of my own identity.
Mendelssohn is a composer poised on the boundaries of Christianity and Judaism. It’s common to speak of Mendelssohn as Jewish, yet he appears to have identified himself as a Lutheran, which would explain why he’s among the composers with a large body of work with strongly Christian associations:
- Elijah and St Paul: two oratorios on Biblical subjects
- Christian music including one of the best Christmas carols ever, none other than “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”
- His Reformation Symphony, which includes a version of Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
As it turns out, there are several Mendelssohns in the documentary.
- Composer Felix, who lived from 1809 – 1847. In our era of unending adolescence (speaking as someone who still doesn’t know what he’s going to be when he grows up) it’s chastening to look at yet another romantic composer who didn’t see his 40th birthday. Frédéric Chopin died at 39 as did Carl Maria von Weber, while Franz Schubert died at 31!
- Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who lived from 1729–1786. Moses was among the first to argue for the plurality of faiths, whereby the various pathways of the great faith traditions (Christianity and Judaism in Germany, but Islam as well by implication) were all valid routes to God.
- The recent generations of the family, including the film-maker and her father
The doc asks some big questions with an ingenuous tone and a straight face. I find myself wondering, “what is a Jew?” The film gives us the subjective take of the Mendelssohn family, to whom it seemed that Felix was largely assimilated into the Christian culture surrounding him in Leipzig, and a devout Lutheran.
But the facts aren’t quite so optimistic. The commission for the Reformation Symphony (composed in honour of the tri-centennial of the Reformation) was never paid. Although Felix missed his composition deadlines it has been speculated that the real reason he lost the commission is due to his Jewish Heritage, a potential embarrassment in a celebration honouring Protestantism.
I find myself wondering, not for the first time, at the complexity of what makes one Jewish. It seems to be an odd club, in that sometimes people are trying to get in, sometimes trying very hard to get out. If your mother is Jewish then you are in. Conversions to Judaism are permitted.
Getting out? Apparently lots of people assumed they were not Jewish –both according to the official criteria above as well as other reasons –but were blindsided by the bizarre definitions used by the Nazis. For the first time I understand something I never got before. Why didn’t they leave? The simple answer: because they felt safe. Felix did not think of himself as Jewish, and in the next generation no one practised any religion whatsoever. Fortunately Hayman’s family survived, but not without some scares along the way.
When the Nazis wrote their history of German music it would attempt to change the truth while effacing or denigrating those like Mendelssohn whose contribution had been central to German culture for many generations. Ha… they failed.
None of this is news. What makes the documentary different is its personal slant, as reflected in the title, and the intriguing opportunity presented by unifying the study of several generations via the family and its history. Instead of zeroing in on one period, we enter into several different lives within the family, different sorts of challenges, but in the end, the same questions throughout. In telling the story many aspects of Mendelssohn’s music are illuminated. Just as Felix sits at the boundary between two religions, the film happily straddles the boundary between documentary and art, memoir and speculation.
The documentary is available for purchase (I bought it) and bears repeated watching.